I am recently returned from planet Katsucon. A strange and alien world where nothing is real. Characters from video games, Japanese anime and manga, Disney cartoons, and even the odd Captain Jack Sparrow danced and cavorted through the halls of the Gaylord National. Styrofoam wigs in brilliant orange and vibrant lavender sat precariously atop the heads of giggling girls, some of whom were wearing little else, while boys in garishly bright trench coats with improbably sized swords dueled 14-foot tall robots against the backdrop of the atrium fountains’ carefully choreographed music, light, and water show. The Gaylord National is a perfect venue for hosting a weekend’s sojourn from reality, the hotel’s atrium itself being an impossibly idyllic recreation of a street in Olde Town Alexandria.
Katsucon is a cosplay convention. Conventions, by and large, are not my thing. Cosplay and anime conventions even less so. As should be no surprise, I spent much of the weekend feeling isolated and alone; as if in my visit to the strange and wonderful world I could see everything, grasp everything, but isolated by my protective suit never truly feel it. I spent much of the convention and the days since grappling with the how and why of this isolation.
To enjoy a convention you need to slip inside its skin and understand how it breathes. If you go home at 10 pm, you miss the late night room parties, sneaking into the guest suites to hot tub with the celebs, and the late night elevator raves. But somehow, this convention was just too slippery for me to get my hands on…
Perhaps I had grown too old. The dozens of young girls scampering about in bras and hooker shorts, far from being titillating, made my skin crawl. They seemed so young. How many were only 14? 16? I even caught myself wondering where their parents were. And let me tell you, when you have that thought for the first time, you suddenly feel ready to cash out your 401k, take your Metamucil, and put yourself to bed at the reasonable hour of eight o’clock.
Perhaps I was responding to something else. Though I have consumed all manner of anime and Japanese video games, I will freely admit that there is something about, for lack of a better term, “Weeaboo” culture that just rubs me wrong. I lived in Japan for a time. Many of the people I met there were not particularly appreciative of having their entire culture reduced to cartoons and video games. In my world travels, I found that much of the world does the same to us. Americans are all irrational gun-toting nuts that solve their problems with car chases and gratuitous violence. Neither flattering nor fair.
I must also admit that this is not a fair criticism of Katsucon. Katsu is not a celebration of Japanese culture. It is a celebration of the anime/manga/video game/cosplay subcultures. Calling it racist would be like calling a tattoo convention racist for portraying all Americans as tattooed rednecks—for the record, fans of tattoos, don’t send angry letters.
I stopped at one point and spoke with members of the jazz band SwingLab, who regularly play weekends in the Belvedere lounge at the hotel. They loved the convention. Woody Hume, the SwingLab drummer, told me that many of Katsu people, apart from wearing “wildly entertaining costumes” were friendly and generous. The Katsu guests were much more likely to approach them, talk with them, request songs, and tip them. They loved the Katsu crowd. Which left me with one inescapable conclusion.
The problem was me. How was it I, as someone who would regularly author articles for a Geek blog, could be so dismissive of such a large segment of Geek culture? Regardless of whether or not it is “my thing,” the idea that I could treat it as so other, so alien, was repulsive to me.
In the end, I cannot say I found a way to connect. I remained apart. I spoke with many attendees, but despite a shared identity as “geeks,” that shared sense of experience, that chemistry, just was not there. But for one moment, I did know what it was like to be a citizen of planet Katsu, to fully enjoy being part of that world. It was when a 14-foot tall Red Robot with glowing eyes stomped past me in the hall, and for a moment, I could believe he was real.